Wisconsin politics: Is there any state with more partisanship or acrimony?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
March 16 2011 1:48 PM

The Recall State

How Wisconsin politics became a national model for partisanship and acrimony.

Protests in Wisconsin. Click image to expand.
Protests in Wisconsin

If your taste in politics tends toward the partisan and the absurd, there may be no better place for you in America right now than Wisconsin. There is no state with more acrimony or more members of opposite parties staring daggers at each other. After Republicans passed Gov. Scott Walker's Budget Repair Bill without any Democrats present, Wisconsin Democrats turned their party into a 24/7 machine armed to recall as many Republican senators as they can. Wisconsin Republicans, meanwhile, are aiding ad hoc groups of Tea Party activists who are trying to pull the same thing on Democrats.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

There are 16 senators, of both parties, who are vulnerable to recalls, and 20 official committees distributing recall petitions. If any of the petitions are valid, there will be general elections in those districts, incumbents defending against new challengers. If any of the efforts succeed, there will probably be elections in June.

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All this recall and response can be traced to Feb. 18, when Ian Millhiser of ThinkProgess put up an explanatory blog post titled "Eight GOP State Senators in Wisconsin Can Be Recalled Right Now; Gov. Walker Can Be Recalled in January." Any legal voter who had lived in a senator's district for 10 days or more could declare his intent to pursue a recall of any legislator who had served for at least one year.

News of this spread very quickly, in Wisconsin and elsewhere. The first people to take advantage of the recall law were Republicans, and they weren't technically from Wisconsin. The American Patriot Recall Coalition, also known as the American Recall Coalition, filed recall petitions on Feb. 23 and Feb. 24 against eight of the 14 Senate Democrats who had high-tailed it out of the state to prevent the state Senate from voting on the budget bill.

This made national news, and not for good reasons. The Onion ran an "American Voices" item cracking wise on the idea of Utahans meddling with Wisconsin. ("Following their example, my fellow Pennsylvanians and I have filed paperwork to compel Moammar Qaddafi to step down in Libya.") That was irritating for Dan Baltes, the executive director of the group.

"I'm from La Crosse!" he said on Tuesday, over the phone. "I'm not as removed from the situation as people might want to believe. As long as we're talking about that, why don't we talk about the influence in Wisconsin right now from Organizing for America, from the AFL-CIO, and from the Communist Parties and Socialist Parties out of Chicago. This out-of-state thing is a red herring."

The American Patriot Recall Coalition was trying to give some focus to local activists who didn't know how to pull this off. (Baltes' most recent experience with the recall is his campaign to remove Tucson's Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, who criticized the tone of Republican politicians in the wake of a January shooting spree at an event hosted by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.) There are local Tea Party activists. According to Baltes, there are at least 12 of them in every targeted district and up to 50 of them in key districts. They have to get as few as 11,817 signatures and as many as 20,352 to force recalls.

"We're right at the 50 percent mark in all of the districts we're targeting," Bartes said.

That's exactly what Democrats are saying about their own campaign. On Tuesday, spokesman Graeme Zielinski confirmed what he'd told the Washington Post this week—that Democratic volunteers have exceeded 45 percent of the signatures they need across all districts and exceeded 50 percent of the signatures they need to go after three districts in particular. Zielinski wouldn't confirm it, but it's suspected that these are the districts where polls give Democrats the lead in potential recalls—Randy Hopper, Dan Kapanke, and Luther Olsen.

"These big, bad Tea Party groups?" says Zielinski. "We're lapping them. We're absolutely lapping them."

The Democrats didn't rush to file recall petitions. They built a campaign tactically and centrally. They started about a week later than the Republicans did and bought a Web site, RecalltheRepublican8.com. They staged recall campaigns from Democratic offices. Call, say, the campaign to recall Hopper, and you are put in touch with the Democratic Party's statewide office. The Democrats claim to have more people on the job and say they surged with volunteers after the Senate pushed through the budget repair bill without the Democrats in the room. They report $1 million raised since the fight started.

Democratic and union activists also provided this story with one of its more surreal moments: On Saturday, they swarmed outside the Fond du Lac home they believed was the residence of Hopper. A woman emerged from the house and told them two things. One: Hopper didn't live there. Two: She was his wife, Alysia; her husband, who filed for divorce last August, lived somewhere else with a mistress. After this incident—and responding to inquiries from an intrigued Wisconsin press corps—Alysia Hopper released more evidence that her estranged husband didn't live in his old house.

So far, at least, Republicans have not engaged in any home visits. In fact, unlike the state Democratic Party, state Republicans aren't even raising money for the recall efforts. "We're assisting them," said Mark Jefferson, executive director of the Wisconsin Republican Party. "They're largely Tea Party groups and conservative organizations, and we think they're at a little bit of a structural disadvantage compared to the unions."

The party is also "logging incidents" in which its members are "meeting resistance from union types who are crashing their rallies and not letting people sign their petitions," he said.

This can be busy work. On Tuesday the Recall Jim Holperin Committee, a group dedicated to ousting that Democratic senator, reported that protesters in the town of Merrill, Wis., had crashed their rally and ripped up petitions. "The policemen who were there," said organizers, "and who were standing in close proximity to these events as they unfolded, did nothing to assist those collecting the petitions as they were being destroyed."

Things are slightly calmer 160 miles to the south in Madison. It took till Wednesday, but Republicans agreed to forgive Democrats for their flight and not enforce a contempt order that barred them from voting. Democrats went back to work. But they also kept their eyes trained on the goal that one of them, Sen. Chris Larson, mused about in a tweet: "Have you chipped in to help the recall of Republican senators yet?" he asked.

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